Xining to Jiayuguan – through Middle Earth to the end of civilization
- Categorized in: April 2011
Xining is a great place for a rest. The air is clear and as clean as one could hope in a thriving Chinese city.
I drew into the outskirts of the provincial capital of Qinghai at a sedate pace, imagining that the ride the day before must have taken a lot out of me. In fact what was probably going on was that my body was struggling a bit with the ascent in altitude. Xining stands at something like 2,400m above sea level.
Simply glad to be there, I soon met up with my first contact in the place, a fellow ex-resident of Hong Kong called Norman. Norman is of Guangdong lineage and moved to Qinghai with his family around 6 years ago to set up a cheese-making business there. He and a handful of other associates source locally made cheese in Qinghai (both from cows and yak), and plan to market it both within China and internationally.
The first thing he did was sit me down in his office to have a chat with him and his business partner Manfred (a German from Uruquay) whereupon I was treated to a history of the Mennonites, an overview of agriculture through Gansu and the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau and two small tubfuls of their cheese. This was delicious but after the final piece in the second tub disappeared I did start to wonder what the possible repercussions may be of eating so much cheese in one sitting. (At the time of writing, it doesn't seem to have done much harm.)
Norman and his family maintain an entire empty flat for visitors, and he soon had me installed here, where I would stay for the couple of days I was there. Big, airy and very comfortable, I felt very spoilt after my chilly tent the night before.
So began a couple of days that didn't involve much sight-seeing but did involve meeting a number of people, all of whom were very welcoming and friendly to me. I had a vague idea that I would try to get a tour bus out to see the Qinghai Lake – the biggest lake in central China just 100km or so west of Xining city – but in the end it was better to get a decent rest before the ride that followed.
Norman introduced me to Philip, another of his business partners, who has lived in Xining for a similar period with his American wife, and now 4 children. Both Philip and Norman were extremely interesting to talk to, and told me a lot about different aspects of the local people. On the first morning, a glorious but cold, clear day, Philip took me with him on his regular ascent of one of the local mountains which lies just to the west of the city – obviously enough called XiShan – or Western Mountain.
We talked at length about his life, and the work he is doing in Xining, about the Tibetan people, and about the Tibetan form of Buddhism – about which he knows a great deal. Needless to say, I had about a million questions I wanted to ask him, which kept interrupting the flow of what he was telling me. My questions were somewhat tempered by the fact that I was struggling to catch my breath keeping up with his pace up the mountain. (I was thinking either I am really not that fit or Philip must do this an awful lot! I later realised it was a bit of both – he's fit, and I was still struggling to acclimatise to the altitude.)
Looking north-east across Xining from the top of XiShan
At the top of the mountain, there is a large collection of Buddhist prayer poles and prayer flags. The basic purpose of these, according to this form of Buddhist belief, is to increase the number of recitations of certain prayers that are written in Sanskrit on the flags. The premise is that each time a person completes the chant of a prayer, the person “gains merit”. How much merit, and before whom or what this merit is gained is a moot point – at least in Buddhism. But being an open-ended exercise this has nurtured the practise of finding ingenious ways of increasing your count of recitations. Prayer wheels are one way of doing this, and putting up these flags, usually in a windy place, is another. Hence the creation of these “high places”. Each time the wind flaps a prayer flag, then that counts as one recitation of the entire prayer written on the flag. So on a breezy day, a person can rack up a pretty high score of “merit” while they themselves can continue getting on with their day.
Prayer poles and flags on top of XiShan, west of Xining
I won't go into it here, but I've got more to say about these “high places” in a separate article (yet to be written).
Anyway, the view from the top to all four points of the compass was beautiful and the morning and early afternoon spent with Philip were very encouraging and illuminating for me. He is an impressive man.
Philip and THRB on top of XiShan - west of Xining
I spent more time with Norman and others he introduced me too that evening and the following morning – a Sunday. Sparing the details, I felt fortunate to spent time with such a collection of inspiring individuals and families. I have to say they make everything I believe in very real.
Well, the day of my departure came around. I'd been told by an American friend that the route north that I intended to take took me through an area called MenYuan County, which he told me was closed to foreigners. This was, apparently, because the area is used for a number of military bases which had particular significance should the Russians (ever) decide to invade China. I can't see it happening anytime soon, but the Chinese had selected the double-tier of the Qilian Moutains and the Dabanshan as one of their redoubts. Having now seen them, I can well imagine they would be very difficult for any invading force to overcome.
But taking on his advice, I decided to spend the first night on the near (south) side of the first pass, then wake early the following morning and press on through the entire county in one day, spending the second night in the province of Gansu beyond. Most of this ride would be at altitudes of between 2,500 and 4,000m above sea level, so I expected it would be hard work.
The ride up to the first pass was initially very easy, following a river along tree-lined avenues that provided welcome shade from the sun that has increased in its intensity almost every day since I left Xi'an. After about 60km I spied the first snow-covered peaks of the Dabanshan.
First glimpse of the snow-capped peaks of the Dabanshan
Soon after that the agriculture started to change from cultivated land to grasslands and pastures for cattle and more and more yak and sheep. The first climb was to lift me over a dam – one of the reservoirs created in the mountains to provide water for irrigation for the river valley below. Once I'd toiled my way up to this level, the air grew noticeably colder. The reservoir itself was 75% covered in ice and all around the surrounding valley the water streams were scattered with snow and ice, despite the intensity of the sunshine.
Reservoir on the ride up to the Dabanshan, Qinghai province
The landscape was getting increasingly lonely now. Fewer and fewer habitations and no roadside shops of any kind for long stretches. Eventually I reached the point where the road leaves the valley floor to climb up over the pass into MenYuan County. At this point there was a small village and I stopped for some provisions and a mental rallying point before I attempted the climb.
It was here, as I was sitting enjoying the sun on my back, that a couple of Chinese men got out of their car and came over to talk with me. They were on their way to Xining for a meeting but invited me to look them up when I eventually arrived in the town of Jiayuguan, where they lived. Happy to have another friendly face or two further down the track, I said I certainly would.
I then set to getting as far up the pass as I could that evening. This proved pretty agonising after a while. As the road curled into the shade, the temperature dropped suddenly, while the sunny stretches continued to be hot work. Not knowing exactly how far it was to the summit I eventually ground to a halt around 6.30pm, as the sun finally dropped behind the western ridge.
A lonely but exceptionally noisy campsite, 4km short of the pass into MenYuan County
I quickly set up camp in the crook of a switch-back in the road. Although a pretty remote spot, this proved an error. At this point, all the heavy traffic that was passing up and down the pass had to apply their brakes, or tank their engines to get up the hill. This wasn't immediately obvious to me as I set up (though perhaps it should have been) probably because I was feeling very spaced out for lack of oxygen at this height, and physical exhaustion from the ride. But once I sat inside and made ready to go to sleep as the darkness overran the twilight, I was soon regretting not packing any ear-plugs. So began a night I'd rather forget. Freezing cold at close to 4,000m high, and every two or three minutes an engine gunning or brakes squealing seemingly next to my head.
The wonder of it was that I did actually get some sleep – I don't know how. But at the earliest possible hour, I got up and began the lengthy rigmarole of breakfast and packing-up. To date, I haven't managed to do this faster than 3 hours. I guess I'll need to improve my time the more I use the tent in the desert but so far it hasn't really mattered!
Finally ready to go as the morning is already well-advanced
It turned out I was only 4km from the tunnel at the top which takes traffic through the final crossing of the pass. I got up this fairly easily and was delighted to be speeding through the tunnel into the oncoming daylight.
When I emerged out the other end, the view took my breath away.
The immediate view over MenYuan County as I emerged from the Dabanshan Tunnel
I had to stop and savour what I was looking at. Superlatives all fail to do the scene justice. Magnificent, beautiful, awesome, wonderful. It was just inspiring. Behind me back up to the peaks were snow fields, and below me, laid out in the crystal clear morning air was a plunging valley that then opened out into rolling grassland, with the backdrop of the Qilian Mountains rising from the grassland floor to the north. The road wound round the mounds and folds of the land as it wend its way to the farmland plain below.
Looking back up at the peaks of the Dabanshan Pass
Feeling energised by this view, I set off at quite a speed and was soon passing the little homesteads and first villages of MenYuan County. This was one of the few occasions I thought of my motorbike – more particularly how I would like to be on it right then! I guess it's highly unlikely I'll return there one day with some of my motorcyclist friends, but it was nice idea at the time.
The road making its way down onto the MenYuan plains
The day then unfolded into quite a hard ride along the dried out yellow grasslands of the MenYuan plains. Quite soon I was passed by two or three police cars who paid me no attention whatsoever so I figured no one was going to mind me passing through after all.
Again there were very few settlements or villages all the way through the day so I became quite tired, chugging along into a head wind at this high altitude with not much food inside me and after a poor night's sleep.
Still, the emptiness of the landscape made it all the more evocative. Certainly in a month or two, as the brown grasslands turn into deep green pastures, this area must be stunning. As it was, it reminded me very much of Tolkein's description of his Middle Earth – the plains of Gondor and all that. The makers of the Lord of the Rings movies wouldn't have needed any CGI with this landscape. It is all laid out there as it should be already.
The grasslands of MenYuan County - that spread between the Dabanshan to the south and the Qilian Mountains to the north
By the afternoon, my legs were dying. When you're down to counting out 100m sections, you know it's time for a rest. In the end I managed to make it to the little town of Obo – or Ebauxiang – that sits at the foot of the final climb into Gansu. I stopped here and had a large meal courtesy of some friendly local Hui ladies, thinking it would save me the mafan of cooking for myself an hour or so later in the mountains.
I don’t know if it was the meal or the rest or what, but as I resumed the climb over a lower portion of the Qilian Mountains I could barely turn the crank, my legs were so leaden. The strong headwind from the north certainly didn't help. But as it was, the top came sooner than expected. 7km short of where I thought I'd be crossing into Gansu, I crested the summit, thanked the Lord and then sped on.
The road passes into Gansu province, at 3465m above sea level
The north wind blasted me with its icy breath but I was now jubilant! I didn't care. Blow all you want – I've made it!
This next section was some of the most lovely mountain riding I've done. (I know I keep saying that – I probably will continue to do so as I always get excited going downhill at the end of a long day!) Bombing along down and down and down. And as the air got fuller, my legs got stronger – cutting along a deep gorge with a rushing stream fighting its way past rocks and boulders and crusts of residual ice, down into the province of Gansu. About 20 minutes later I passed the provincial boundary, flying past a surprised looking policeman.
Wanting to take advantage of the remaining light, I carried on well past my intended target distance for the day, on into the flat farmland of Gansu where the local peasant farmers dotted the twilight landscape, squeezing the last scraps out of the daylight before they wandered home for their supper.
But where was my supper going to be? I couldn't understand why I was suddenly feeling so full of energy. Of course, it doesn't take a physiological genius to work out I'd just spend 5 or 6 days at altitude, and now I was reaping the benefits of coming down to a lower altitude. (This was beyond my reasoning at the time though.)
But as the distance increased, the idea of a warm bed and a shower were too attractive for me to stop and find a secluded spot to pitch a tent amid the terraced fields.
Eventually I passed a sign saying 16km to the town of Minle. Although dusk was falling I decided I'd carry on.
So about an hour later I was so happy to be peeling off my clothes and collapsing on a nice comfortable bed for the night. What a day! What a ride! I'd covered two mountain ranges and 161km. And now I had re-joined the Silk Road in the area known as the Hexi Corridor. For now, the mountains are over.
The desert lies ahead...
The Dragon's Mouth
From Minle, the ride into the city of Zhangye was short and easy. Zhangye itself is a moderate sized town with a couple of places of interest for travellers passing through.
The main one is the so-called DaFoSi – the Giant Buddha Temple. This houses the largest reclining Buddha in China – and the largest reclining clay Buddha in the world. It was established in the middle of the 11th century AD, during the Song Dynasty. Legend has it that the emperor Zhe Zong’s Buddhist tutor, called Wei Mie, heard heavenly music on the air and followed it to its source. Here he dug underground and unearthed an ancient statue of the Buddha reclining in the pose of nirvana. The temple was then built on this site.
The Giant Buddha himself - reclining with barely an eye to spare for the passing world
It's been associated with various well-known characters in Chinese history, perhaps most famous of all is the Mongol (Yuan) emperor Kublai Khan, who was said to have been born there. Marco Polo also spent up to a year of his travels in the city of Zhangye while he awaited approval for an audience with Kublai Khan, and he gives a detailed description of this temple. The town has even honoured him with his own statue in a district characterised by faux Venetian architecture.
Marco Polo - or Ma Ke Bo Luo if you prefer - overseeing traffic in Zhangye
As I wandered about the temple grounds I met a French-Canadian couple who were very friendly. I had an enjoyable chat with them about what they were doing and what they thought of the places they'd seen. The man – Jean-Phillippe – is an environmental scientist by profession and he told me some interesting things about China's current environmental predicament. I mean to draw this out into a separate little article once I get to Dunhuang, a Silk Road oasis to the west, so I won't dwell on it here.
Leaving Zhangye early the next morning, I joined Route 312 somewhere around the 2,640km marker. I note this only because this road will be my companion for something like the next 2,000km. So I'd better get on with it.
I made good progress through the day, as the going was flat, passing through a handful of unremarkable towns along the way. After an extended rest for lunch, I set out to do the last 40km or so of the day before looking for a place to camp.
From this point on, I started to see the kind of landscape I can expect for a while. The tree cleared away, the temperature rose, the air dried out, the sun grew stronger. I was entirely at least semi-desert. There was no more cultivated land for a while, and stretching out to the north and west was....nothing. Occasionally the landscape undulated a little, and then I could see to the north the first (or last) waves of the sands of the Gobi desert, sweeping down from Inner Mongolia.
The landscape begins to get very hot, dry and uncultivated - although looking south here you can still see the mountains not too far away
I started to feel tired, hot and lonely. I was somewhat reassured as the road still tracked north-west, parallel to the wall of the Qilian Mountains on my left-handside – which looked ever-more handsome as the glow of the sunset expanded in the west.
This is what I was looking at straight ahead - which is due west. Not much...
Eventually coming out of this particular patch of dry land, stocking up with plenty of water at a gas station and continuing on my way, the farmlands returned and the road dropped again. Only half an hour or so before sunset, I pulled off the road, and pushed my bike and its heavy load along a sandy track under a rail bridge and out into some scrubland towards the mountains.
As I set up a camp, there was no one around, except just as I finished putting in the last pegs, I noticed some sheep trotting along in front of an old shepherd who came up with a big grin on his face and said good evening. His skin was tanned the colour of autumn leaves, and he only had a few teeth left in his head. But his eyes sparkled and told of a lifetime spent outdoors.
He invited me to supper but not wanting to leave all my stuff unguarded I had to decline. So off he went with a wave.
That night was much more comfortable. I slept pretty well, was easily warm enough, and despite the occasional sound of a train passing in the distance, I woke feeling almost refreshed.
Ready to move off after a better night's sleep in the tent
That day I was pushing on to the city of Jaiyuguan, which is the outer extremity of the Great Wall of China. It was here that the emperors of the Ming Dynasty built a redoubtable fort to guard the pass between the snow-peaked Qilian Mountains to the South and the black-shale MaZong (Horse's Mane) Mountains to the north – a gap of only some 15km. The fort and the town and then city that grew up from it came to be known as the “mouth” of China. The long thin strip of land that leads back into the rest of China – the Hexi Corridor – is correspondingly known as the “neck”.
As a historical site, the fort is extremely impressive and well-preserved. It has three main gates passing from east to west, and the Great Wall itself runs south and north from its flanks towards each range of mountains, forming a complete barrier that spans the entire pass. Walking around the fort leaves quite an impression on the mind of someone about to set out for the desert wastelands to the west.
A classic view from the Silk Road - the Jiayuguan Fort, the last outpost of imperial China, backed by the Qilian Mountains
It is from the western Gate of Conciliation (as it's called) that merchants, travellers and political exiles would set out in the wilds beyond the realm of Chinese political sovereignty into the badlands of barbarians and desert demons. The merchants and travellers left hoping for a propitious journey; the political exiles left with a pitiful heart, knowing they were never to return to their homeland again. Perhaps the most famous and the first of these was the old Chinese sage, Lao-Tzu back in the 5th century BC. He left riding on a black buffalo, metaphorically shaking the dust of China from his weary feet, but not before he had imparted the Tao to a lowly gate-keeper, the last person to see the great man alive before he wandered to his doom in the wilderness.
Looking beyond the tourist-hawkers at the nothingness of the Gobi...
But what a departure! The pale sands and desert haze stretch off to the horizon. If it weren't for the specks of traffic trailing along the black strips of tarmac to the south of the fort, I would have little doubt that I would baulk at making this journey. There's something about this emptiness that makes my heart tremble. And for the first time, I felt real fear about what lies ahead.
The female missionaries Cable and French passed through here in the 1920s and they described the atmosphere of this place like this:
“The scene was desolate beyond words, and if ever human sorrow has left an impress on the atmosphere of a place, it is surely in Jiayuguan, through whose portals for centuries past a never-ending processional departure of political outcasts, pitiless prodigals, terrified outlaws, the steps of all those have converged to the sombre portal, and through it for ever left the land of their birth. The arched stones are covered with poems wrung from broken hearts.”
Of which one example reads:
Looking westwards we see the long long road leading to the New Dominions,
Only the brave cross the Martial Barrier.
Who is not afraid of the vast desert?
Should the scorching heat of Heaven make him frightened?
So in my mind, this really is crunch time. I have to gird up my loins (so to speak), mentally and practically prepare for the heat and emptiness and (I suppose) tedium of long, long straight roads that lie ahead. This feels like the end of the East and the beginning of the Centre!
My time in Jiayuguan has been made more enjoyable through spending some time with my friend from the road to Zhangye. “Jack” Zhang has been very kind, treating me to several meals and introducing me to his friends. We even stretched to a little (more) karaoke last night. Since every song seems to be about love – lost love, broken love, redeemed love, regained love, everlasting love – KTV usually has the effect of putting me in a soulful kind of mood.
This evening was no different. And the scurrilous dreams of searching and searching for a lost love returned briefly last night.
But I awoke to Easter morning. And what better peace of mind and heart before a journey such as I am about to make than to know the assurance that Love and Life wins. That death and pain and sorrow are conquered.
That Jesus is ALIVE!
Praise God and may He watch over me in the coming days and weeks.
God bless us all on this Easter Day!
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